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Vol. 18 No. 2 - April 2012

Cell-Telephony and Ecological Concerns

By: R.K. Kohli*, VP Sharma** and H.P. Singh***

With the advancement of information technology and electronic communication, the use of mobile-phone technology has escalated enormously in the recent past. There is huge mushrooming of cell-phone users` and hence the towers emitting electromagnetic frequency radiations (emf-r) in the environment. Other than TV, Radio and Cell-phone towers, other forms of communication technology (cordless phones, fax machines) and the use of internet services and satellite has also boosted emf-r cloud in the environment. In this whole scenario if emf-r has harmful effects then it will definitely affect individuals’ health other biota, and thus ecology.


Radiation is a natural component of earth’s atmosphere. Emf spectrum could be divided into ionizing (eg x-rays, UV etc.) and non-ionizing (eg. emitted from high voltage power-lines, radio and TV towers, Photostat machines, cell-phone towers etc.). The non-ionizing radiations being of relatively longer wavelength have relatively less power, thereby cause no immediate damage. Presumably for this reason, these are mistakenly assumed to be harmless. Modern man under the umbrella of development has infused the whole planet earth under the enormous cloud of such non-ionizing radiations. The intensity of these radiations are so much and so persistent now that every life-form of the urban biosphere is exposed to it. These radiations affect in dual ways, (a) thermal effect (since they generate heat on the surface, body or tissue they fall on and increase the temperature of the surroundings) and (b) non-thermal.

In the case of high tension power lines, the emf-r generated effects are localized and limited, unlike those from cell-phones and their towers, which are almost everywhere.  

For any action of emf-r on biological systems, it is the power density (a product of strengths of electric and magnetic fields measured in W/m2) that reduces with distance, and the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR). SAR depends on cell-phone wattage and body tissue. It will also depend on the conductivity, body weight and surface area of the absorptive system. For instance, it is higher in children than in adults. Service providers are required to report their SAR to regulating agency. As per Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 1999 the upper limit for SAR is 1.6W/Kg body wt. This is with respect to man. One wonders the limits for insects and microbes. Further, this exposure depends on product of power density and duration of exposure apart from the distance and absence of obstacles. Its strength decreases with increasing distance, although the total energy radiated from the source remains the same. Insects, birds and microbes have no such protective obstacles like houses and buildings.

People love wireless communication. Cell-phone industry is therefore, thriving and progressing. Common man does not understand ecological principles and thus the consequences for posterity.

FCC that regulates the standards for such emissions uses thermal effects of the Radio-frequency (RF) radiations as the parameter of evaluation. It is here that the basic error seems to have crept into decision making. The thermal (and non-thermal) effects caused by each individual installation or gadget may be negligibly small, the production and use of RF generating devises is so huge and continuous that the cumulative impact has assumed dangerous proportions today.

Chandigarh, a very small city, with an urban area of 78 sq Km has 408 cell-phone towers. In a preliminary survey the range of emf-r was found to be between 564 and 97926 μW/m2 as against the presumable permissible limit of10 μW/m2

Even if cell-phone is not in use or not in that area, the biota including the soil ecosystem is continuously exposed to its emf-r. The cumulative effect of daily exposure is expected to be enormous and devastating in long run. Those who use cell-phone handsets are getting voluntarily exposed to emf-r while those not using it get involuntary exposure to such radiations that too continuously. Many articles available in literature try to link the emf-r to cancer of various types, behavioral change, immediate memory loss, fatal tissue damage, DNA strand breakage, suppression of endocrine and immune system, cataract of eyes, altered blood chemistry.

Standards & Guidelines

Apart from ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection) - an independent scientific commission established by the International Radiation Protection Association, there are national and international bodies like FCC of USA; IEEE - Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; NRPB - National Radiological Protection Board (UK); NCRP -  National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements which are working to maintain the emf-r standards. Surprisingly, although the ecological principles and the biological systems anywhere are similar, the standards and guidelines vary. Several states have set their own national standards for exposure to emf-r. However, they vary by a factor of over 100. Strikingly for many developing nations there are no standards set.

in a few countries

 Exposure level (W/cm2)

in a few countries

Exposure level (W/cm2)

New South Wales, Australia




Salzburg, Austria (for pulsed transmissions)


New Zealand












United States








United Kingdom





Auckland, New Zealand


The decision makers seem to have set standards keeping man under focus while ignoring other forms of biota under consideration. Usually, commercial interests influence the decision making. ICNIRP considered thermal effects while making its recommendations and commercial interests. Some nations finding it economically beneficial adopted it. Same mistake India is likely to commit. Cell-phone industry and service provider groups, being monetarily strong, influence in decision making apart from modifying and interpreting the existing laws.

Guidelines normally set for average population cannot take care of the thresholds of a minority of sensitive people or low weight children or pregnant mothers. Air pollution guidelines, for example, are not focused on the needs of asthmatic patients. Similarly, emf-r guidelines are not designed to protect heart patients with implanted pacemakers that have low limits of emf-r disturbance.

Controversial perceptions on health effects

Controversies and public debates on the possible effects of RF radiations emitted from the cell-phones or their base station (that receive and transmit the signals) and transmitters on human health and other biotic components, soil structure and dynamics, apart from the whole terrestrial ecology have erupted.

On one side cell-phone companies and big industrial houses are giving impression that these wireless technologies are very safe, as cigarettes companies were saying 40 years ago but now total concept has changed with the findings that cigarettes are carcinogenic. They also argue that there is no technology that is free from any hazard. The radio stations and other such installations that are in use for the last many decades have not shown any perceivable direct or indirect effects on human health, other biota or even the ecology. According to them there is nothing wrong with the technology if used with recommended precautions. In nature there are many forces operative simultaneously; in the absence of any prior studies (in favor or against) evidencing the impact of emf-rs exclusively from the cell-phony, there seems no justification of the accusation against the technology or the gadget.

Environmentalists on the other hand often argue that for general public the exposure levels arising from the handset phones held close to the ear adversely affect the brain, leading to short-term memory loss, headache, brain-tumors, sleep disorders, cancers, depression and tiredness and uveal melanoma of eye etc. These radiations cause thermal and non-thermal impacts on the biota they fall on. In addition, these electronic gadgets indirectly affect personal safety of the public by increasing risk of accidents, hazards of waste pile-up and damage to the buildings from the towers in urban habitation.

Microwave ovens work on 2.45 Ghz frequency to cook food. Cell-phones use the same/very near high frequency waves to communicate with cell-phone towers to connect the phone call. However, the intensity of the cell-phone waves is much weaker. Microwave on high power cooks food quicker than if set at low power. Cell-phones and their transmission towers may have the same slow effect. Thermal effects of emf-r from cell-phone are well established. Long-term exposure to high intensity emf-r causes Microwave syndrome and health hazard. In Moscow, low intensity microwave bombardment 5 mW/cm2 for 9 hours/day, from low intensity radar from 1950-1970 made on US embassy led three U.S. Ambassadors to death and also caused cancer in 30 women and children.

Several metabolic events in the body itself also generate currents. Low frequency cell-phone emf-r also induces currents in the living tissue. The cells/tissues fail to detect such induced currents below the background level. Therefore, at low frequencies, exposure guidelines ensure that the level of current induced by electromagnetic fields is below that of natural body currents.

Impacts on Biota

Cell-telephony is a new technology incidentally with no proper long-term scientific studies reported on health effects, such as cancer. The data available that form the basis for guidelines or standards set by different countries are based on the thermal effects due to similar emf-r from the high tension wires passing through the agricultural fields.

Trees exposed to high frequency waves convert these absorbed radiations into electrical currents which flow into the soil leading to change in pH and soil temperature.

In an interesting study in the University of Leeds UK as reported by National Geography News (July 21, 2006), while comparing a million records on wild honeybees from over hundreds of sites in UK and the Netherlands before and after 1980, a dramatic decline in the diversity of bees to the tune of 80% of the sites was noticed. Likewise, in Florida, a veteran beekeeper David Hackenberg lost 364 of 400 colonies / beehives. Such disappearance was noticed in 24 other states also. The number of beehives dropped from 12000 to just 1000. This led to an emergency working group to look for the possible reasons including pathogen (invasive mite, fungal/bacterial/viral) attack. However, nothing conclusive except widespread failure of bee’s immune system was expected. However, if it was true, mass death rather than disappearance would have been reported. The exodus of honeybees could have been because of emf-r cloud rather than microbial attack.

Similarly, drastic decline in the populations of hoverfly – another pollinator in UK has become a source of worry for naturalists, horticulturists, agriculturists and biodiversity conservationists alike. This has consequently led to decline in insect-pollinated wild flowers with no effect on wind-pollinated flora. The reason, here also remains elusive.

Likewise, House-sparrow (Passer domesticus), a cosmopolitan bird from Britain had been till recently a bird of every city, town or village in India. Since 1990s it has become a bird of rare visibility. The situation is not so only in India but the world over, including urban Europe, the place of its origin. As the name suggests, this small omnivorous lived in and around buildings built by man and away from the forest carnivores. Many reasons, like use of pesticides or changed building architecture are attributed to the sudden disappearance of this man-friendly bird. But disappearance in a short span is not explained by such reasons. Nevertheless, the mushrooming of widespread cell-phone emf-r cloud in urban world coincides with the disappearance of house-sparrow. In general, the avian fauna being very sensitive could have been pushed to the edges and in area of hostile and unacceptable niches.

Being visible and man-friendly species, the house-sparrow caught our attention as disappearance of honeybees because of economic loss.  One can speculate that densities of many micro-organisms of soil or small wild arthropods, annelids etc. in urban habitation overloaded with cell-phone towers/electro-clouds which might also have abandoned and remained un-noticed. In the absence of any inventory or baseline data on ecological indices, before the installation of cell-telephony in urban areas, such loss, if any, cannot be proved. Since the widespread use of cell-phone is about 20 years old, there has not been enough time for studying the long-term exposure effects on health of man and other biota, so the ecology

We have experimentally proved that active cell-phone generated emf-r retards seed germination and subsequent seedling growth, reduces root differentiation and damages root hair surfaces, causes abiotic stress and affects metabolism in comparison to respective controls. Likewise, the brain differentiation in chick embryos of fertilized hen eggs exposed to cell-phone emf-r for 4 hours gets affected. The brood size of queen honeybee, pollen carrying capacity and bee return gets reduced under the influence of cell-phone generated emf-r.

Environmental Consequences:

We have laws against air, water and noise pollution but ignored on radiofrequency radiations in the country. The latest efforts are cosmetic. On account of increasing e.m.f-r clouds, concerns of health effects on man and other biota apart, environmental consequences on account of global warming and biodiversity loss, both related and on focus of world’ most important conventions, are weighing heavy on ecologists’ worry.


*Dean Research and Professor of Botany, Panjab University, Chandigarh, [email protected]

**Sr. Technical Engineer, Zoology Department Panjab University, Chandigarh, [email protected]

***Asst Professor, Department of Environment, Panjab University, Chandigarh, [email protected]

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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